Interview with Shamus Khan from Public Culture

We are excited to share this interview with Shamus Khan, the new editor of Public Culture. We chat about his background, how he became the editor of the journal, how he sees the journal changing in the future, and what special issue topics are currently in the works.

Tell me a little about yourself and your background.

Iddpcult_26_1’m a sociologist. I’m the second sociologist in a row for Public Culture, which I think is a little unique, especially since it’s an anthropology and cultural studies journal. But I’m a cultural sociologist, so I do work on cultural institutions. I have a big project right now on the New York Philharmonic, I’m a former musician, and I worked my way through college as a restaurant cook and own a restaurant, so I’m a little involved in the cultural life of the places that I live. I also write on inequality, elites, and American culture.

I’m at Columbia University. I write both for popular audiences and for academic audiences, so I’ve been a columnist at Time magazine; I write pretty regularly for the New York Times; I’ve written in places like the New Yorker. I’m sort of attuned to making sure that the scholastic work that we do has some kind of public relevance and impact. I’m going to fairly strictly treat Public Culture as a scholastic publication. At the same time, one of the nice things in writing for the public is being forced to write clearly, and that sort of clarity is something I’m really going to push for within the journal.

My main research areas are culture, elites, inequality, but I’m increasingly working in other areas. I’m leading a big project right now on sexual violence. Columbia has asked me to study rape and sexual assault at college campuses, so I’m doing a very large-scale study on that with a number of ethnographers. So that’s a big part of my life right now.

It’s a new phase for me, recently tenured, to be taking over a publication like this, and really exciting.

How did you come to be the editor of Public Culture?

ddpcult_26_3I’ve been fairly active at the Institute for Public Knowledge, which is where Public Culture has been housed for the last five years under the leadership of Eric Klinenberg. I’ve written for Public Books, which is the popular online community tied to Public Culture. I know Caitlin Zaloom and Sharon Marcus, who run that, very well as well as a lot of members of the board.

To be honest, I was a little surprised when I was asked to take over the journal because I’ve never published in Public Culture. But in having conversations with members of the board, with Eric Klinenberg, it was clear to me that it was a space that would allow me to do some of the things that I wanted to do or see happen within our scholastic community, and that a lot of the things that were happening at the journal were already things that I supported and believed in.

I knew most of the board pretty well and liked all of the people on it, and so that made me feel like I would be stepping into a scenario at least where I’d have allies to talk to about concerns, thoughts, stuff like that. And before I accepted, I read every issue. It was this decision that if this is a journal I’m going to take over, I should know its content, its feel. It’s had many iterations, so in some ways, it’s not a journal; it’s had multiple lives. That was interesting for me to see, and it was also interesting for me to think about in terms of how it is that different scholars have used it to advance things that they’d like to see happen.

So that’s how I approached it, and I thought this is the sort of space that is both deeply scholastic in its orientation but pretty flexible in how that kind of work is done. And then I thought yes, this is the kind of place I’d like to be associated with.

How do you see Public Culture developing and how would you like to shape the journal in the future?

ddpcult_27_3It’s not going to be a radical departure—although Eric had a really keen focus on urban life, which will continue but will not be a huge part of my own focus. So that would be a little bit of difference. I like the theoretical richness of the journal, but I’m also totally happy to publish a paper that is findings-driven, that actually says something interesting about, or makes an observation about, the world; a paper that doesn’t have any strong new theoretical framework. Not every paper needs a new theory of the world.

I’m going to have a lot of focus on clarity of writing. I really want that to be a mark of the journal, so that when you pick it up and read it, you know exactly what people are saying and you’re able to get through each piece without being a specialist in the area. Since it is an interdisciplinary journal, that’s really important to me, that kind of clarity.

I’m going to have a kind of strong editorial hand, so I simply won’t send papers out for review that I don’t think I would publish. My desk rejection rate is pretty high, and that’s primarily because I think there’s no reason for someone to go through a long review process only to discover that the paper wouldn’t be published in that journal anyway. So I think that will be an aspect of my leadership.

In terms of things that I’d really like to bring in, I want more work on race with the journal, so that’s really going to be a focus of mine. It’s something that you can see in the new editorial board in terms of what people work on: race and ethnicity. There’s three new people on the board, Andrea Voyer, Josef Sorett, and Alondra Nelson, and all three of them have an attention to race and ethnicity as a core research area of theirs. So race would be one focus, and then there are three other subjects where I have special issues in mind.

What kinds of submissions do you want to see?

I’m interested in everything, I really am. I think people should also feel comfortable sending me stuff before they submit it. I’m happy to look at things and say this is or is not appropriate for the journal, because why wait six months to find out that something’s not appropriate when you could find out in four days? So there will be some desk rejections, or just conveying to people that this isn’t really appropriate; if you rewrote it in this way, I’d be interested in seeing it, but in its present form, it’s not really for us. That can sting but it’s also less frustrating.

What special issue topics are you planning for the future?

ddpcult_27_2Of course I’ll be open to special issues topics if people want to propose them. But when thinking about special issues and even thinking about things I’d be interested in publishing, one of the things that I consider is: what is a very important public or cultural phenomenon that we don’t spend as much time thinking about in the academy or in our own scholastic work? So for me, violence, sports, and religion are going to be three things I’d like to focus on for special issues.

One special issue I’d like to do is on sports. For sports, it’s because if you think about the ways in which people organize their lives, in many, many places, it sort of centers on sports—not completely centers, but it’s a major, major part of most communities. And yet, in terms of our own academic work, we don’t spend a lot of time on it. But we’re here at Duke; I’m sure that in March, this area is in a kind of radical fervor about March Madness and basketball. And I’m sure that when UNC and Duke play, it’s a pretty big deal around here. And it’s not just the case with college basketball. If we were to look internationally and think about soccer and the ways in which soccer has a huge impact throughout the world—billions of people watch, play, et cetera. It’s also a terrain where nations compete with one another in ways that aren’t associated with violence, but instead they’re these status competitions between places. It’s a really important arena of study that we don’t do much of, and so I want to do something on it.

I also want to do something on religion. We have departments of religion and religious studies, but in going through the journal issues, it’s not that integrated into the ways in which cultural studies has thought about itself. If you think about major organizing principles for people’s lives and for public culture, religion is one of them, and there’s a variety of things that I’m interested in here. I’d like to do a special issue with people that touches on these, and be open to whatever people propose. Like providing a richer and perhaps less caricature-like portrait of Evangelical Christians is an interest. There’s a kind of lay understanding of Evangelicals as conservative. I think that tends to be the case, but it’s not absolutely the case. And there’s multiple forms of Evangelicalism in the United States, and more broadly, there’s, what, a hundred-and-something million Evangelicals in China right now. And we know something about them, but they’re really not part of how we think about the public and cultural life, and we should. Similarly, if we think about the forms of international contention that go on, like the tensions between nations and the inner negotiation of national politics, international politics, religion plays a central role in that. We could not understand the America, Europe, Middle East engagement with one another independent of the impact of religion on those spaces and on the relationships. So I really want something on religion, to understand the relationship between religion and public culture.

ddpcult_27_1And then finally violence. And here I’m interested in interpersonal violence but also state violence, so from the very, very small-scale situations of the extension of violence to the ways in which nations interact and the ways in which nations fight. Some of this is drawn about from my own recent attention and work on sexual violence and sexual assault, on a kind of interpersonal and organizational level, and I’m also interested in the ways in which states perpetuate violence on one another. There’s some work that I’m really interested in on the effects of drones in communities, and what the role of violence is in terms of how it constructs those communities. There’s stuff that I’d be interested in in terms of the ways in which the state perpetuates violence.

Across many of these thematic issues—for example, I said I was interested in race; I’d be interested in some of the racial dynamics behind them. So, say, the relationship between race and religion, race and sport, and also race and violence. And thinking about things like how it is that the state interacts with different kinds of racialized subjects will be really important to me.

I will say gender across all of them is going to be important to me, too. I’m a sociologist, and sociologists typically are interested in race, class, gender—sometimes increasingly sexuality, too. For all of these, those would be things of interest, like the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality across violence, sport and religion. They’re dimensions of investigation.

For all three of the special issues, I imagine an international approach to the phenomenon: so it’s not just violence in America; I want to know about violence in all kinds of spaces, which transcends national boundaries or sometimes is located within a very, very small social space. Across all of them, religion, violence, and sport, there’ll be an international dynamic.

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